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Excerpt from Night of the Living Ornaments

Chapter 1

When I got up this morning, the last thing I expected to do was spend the day hiding in a tree with a lobotomized orange kangaroo toy. Heck, it wasn’t even on my list of planned activities, and that just shows how much I know — it should have been smack dab in the number-one spot.

My big plan for the day was to get dressed, have a couple of Ho Hos, maybe spend a little time trying to convince our chronically depressed mutant Chihuahua Mr. Boots that life is worth living. You know, your basic stuff.

Tackling Bethany Burgess the first week of school? Not in the plan. Taking off down the street waving my lobotomized stuffed friend like a baton in a relay race? Nowhere in the plan. Doing all that in my ratty Wonder Woman sweatpants with the hole in the butt? So not in the plan.

It’s all because of our old neighbors, the Knobles. They had to relocate to a more secure environment, as my mom likes to say, which is actually not so secret code for going to jail. It’s not like I missed them — it’s hard to get nostalgic for people who called my best friend Ty “my little black friend” to his face (which they totally did).

But two seconds after the new neighbors moved into the Knobles’ house, my mom fell head over heels in love with their six-year-old daughter, Cookie. It’s actually embarrassing. She calls Cookie the daughter she never had, which kind of ticks me and Tina off since we’re the daughters she actually did have.

My treetop buddy, Mr. Lobotomy — as I now refer to him — used to be Fred, my perfectly normal and beloved kangaroo toy, and if I didn’t play with him as much as I used to, it might have something to do with the fact that I’m in freaking high school now. But Mom decided it was a sign that I don’t appreciate and value my things, and gave Fred to Cookie. Which, okay, basically sucks, but I’m sure I would’ve gotten over it eventually. Or I would’ve if I hadn’t walked outside and caught Cookie removing the inner workings of Fred’s skull with a pair of pinking shears. Mom was standing right there too, talking to Cookie’s Mom, Mrs. Big Cookie, as I like to think of her, and neither one of them lifted a finger to stop her. They thought it was cute.

I don’t think my reaction was that unusual, considering. Screaming like a banshee, snatching what was left of Fred away from Cookie, and streaking down the sidewalk seems like a very reasonable response, in my opinion.

And, okay, grab-and-run isn’t exactly the world’s best plan. But I’m pretty sure things would’ve worked out in the long run. I would’ve apologized, bought the demon spawn a new toy, and all would have been forgiven and forgotten. It would’ve been fine if I hadn’t proceeded to completely flatten Bethany Burgess as I made my escape.

Bethany Burgess is my sister Tina’s new best friend and, just like Tina, she’s one of those super-stylish girls who eat dorky girls like me for lunch without batting an eye.She’s not the kind of girl you want to tick off. Definitely not the kind of girl you shove onto her butt while she’s wearing new white capri pants. Not unless you’re hoping to achieve instant outcast status in high school (which I was not).

So naturally, that’s what I proceeded to do.

Once I’d flattened Bethany, I did a split-second assessment of the situation. I could already see the headlines in the town tabloid, the Daily Squealer — CRAZY WONDER WOMAN WANNABE WITH LOBOTOMIZED ORANGE SIDEKICK SACKS MISS POPULARITY, BECOMES INSTANT PARIAH. Not the kind of publicity I was hoping for after just one week in school. So I went with the only option I had left: hightail it out of there and hide in a tree until the whole thing blew over. I figured it would take forty to fifty years tops.

I leapfrogged over Bethany before she’d managed to get a punch in (and she’s got a mean right hook too), jumped over Mr. Boots, who was staring off into space like a tiny hurtle in a daisy hat, and skittered around my best friend, Ty, who was gaping at me from across the street with a look of total horror on his face. Nice to know Ty has my back, that’s all I can say there. That horrified look was real helpful. It basically convinced me that fifty years in a tree might not be long enough.

The tree I picked was two streets over, across from Mrs. Wombat’s house, a choice that pretty much insured that I’d be spending my days lonely and alone. Because I can sure as heck guarantee that no one is going to be hanging around outside Mrs. Wombat’s house. You can’t — she calls the cops on you. And that’s if you’re lucky. According to the stories I’ve heard, her yard is littered with the bones of her many unfortunate victims.

Mr. Lobotomy glared at me from the branch next to mine. He didn’t look pleased in the least.

“Hey, buddy, I’m not any happier about this than you are,” I said. Although it’s pretty much a given that I was happier. I wasn’t the one with a wisp of my Poly-fil brain stuck to the gaping hole in my head.

I don’t know how long we sat that way — once your butt starts hurting, every minute feels like an hour, so it’s hard to judge. I had a good view of Mrs. Wombat’s front yard, so I decided to do a little amateur spying to keep my mind off my serious case of branch butt. So far I hadn’t spotted any bones anywhere. But Mrs. Wombat has a pretty extensive monitoring routine going on — every quarter hour on the dot she does a scan of the yard.

“I can bring supplies if you need them. Did you bring a can opener?”

Ty’s voice surprised me so much, I almost fell out of the tree.

I clung to the limb in what I hoped was a casual way and glared down at him. “Took you long enough.”

By my estimation, Ty should’ve shown up with supplies hours ago. I mean, seriously, he saw me run off. How many places could I have gone?

Ty waggled a limp Mr. Boots at me from under the tree. “Mr. Boots needed to get gussied up first.”

I snorted. Once Mom stopped caring whether Mr. Boots went around nude or not, the poor dog pretty much lost all interest in everything, fashion included. It’s like he doesn’t even care anymore. Like right now — a daisy hat? With a purple faux-fur bolero jacket? And no pants? You think he’s depressed now, wait till he’s plastered all over People‘s Worst Dressed issue in his flower show pimp outfit. And given the way the Daily Squealer follows him around, it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

“Somebody’s missing his sister!” Ty waggled Mr. Boots at me again. Mr. Boots didn’t even react — he just lolled his head to the side. He did look pretty ridiculous, but I wasn’t in the mood to be cheered up.

“Ty, forget it, okay?” I geared up for a grouchy rant, but the sound of the screen door slamming across the street stopped me cold. I looked at my watch. A quarter after. Wombat time. We were so busted.

“Ty! Quick! Mrs. Wombat!”

Ty started to roll his eyes at me like Mrs. Wombat was no big deal, but let me tell you, the sound of a potato gun firing wipes the smirk off your face pretty fast.

“Heads up, Arlie!” Ty chucked Mr. Boots at me and hopped up into the tree before I’d even registered what was happening. Lucky for Mr. Boots, I’ve got pretty fast dog-catching reflexes. Not that he even seemed to care. I don’t think his brush with danger even registered. I draped him over a forked branch in what I hoped was a comfortable sitting position and tried to look like a squirrel.

“I know you’re out here,” Mrs. Wombat yelled from across the street, reloading her potato gun. She had a whole sack of Yukon Golds on the stoop beside her. “I can smell you, delinquents! You better show yourself and skedaddle before the cops get here!”

“Think she knows where we are?” Ty breathed. His squirrel impression wasn’t nearly as convincing as mine.

I shook my head. “And she won’t come after us, even if she does. She might shoot us, but she won’t leave the yard.”

That’s the good thing about eccentric neighbors:  Once you figure out their quirks, they’re pretty predictable. Mrs. Wombat, for instance, is (a) crazy as a loon; (b) very territorial; (c) pretty much housebound. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her set foot off of her property.

I peeked through the branches to get a better look. It’s hard to be intimidated by a five-foot-tall woman surrounded with woodland animal lawn decorations, but Mrs. Wombat manages to pull it off. Mom says the stuff about bones is just talk. I sure hoped she was right.

Her real name isn’t even Mrs. Wombat — it’s Wombowski or something like that. But me and Ty always thought she looked like a wombat, so that’s what we went with. (Later on, when I actually saw a picture of a wombat, I realized we’d been thinking of a badger, but by that time it was way too late to change our ways.)

“She’s not seriously going to call the cops, right?” Ty apparently didn’t have a clear view from his perch, otherwise he wouldn’t ask. Mrs. Wombat is the only woman I know who can balance a potato gun, dial a cordless phone, and still look like she could reach down your throat and rip your insides out.

“Oh, she’s calling, all right.”

Ty swallowed and looked around. “They’ll spot us for sure. Your toy’s going to blow our cover.”

Mr. Lobotomy glared at him, but it was true. He was way more orange than any kangaroo had a right to be. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out his mother had been a blaze orange hunting vest.

I cursed under my breath and crawled farther out on the branch to look down the street. I figured we had five, ten minutes tops to figure out a strategy. As soon as the squad cars showed up, it was all over. And it’s not like we’d get any sympathy from them. Heck, Sheriff Shifflett was the one who’d helped Mrs. Wombat make the potato gun in the first place,, to keep her from peppering the neighborhood kids with buckshot. He thought it was a safe alternative. Fat lot he knew. Those potatoes leave a mark.

I leaned farther out on the branch, and my hand closed over something that was definitely not tree. Something metal was twisted in the branch, like a chain or something. I tried to pick the leaves away from it without blowing my cover.

“Huh.” It wasn’t easy to get a look at it and keep my balance at the same time. It was really thin and fine, not the kind of thing you expect to find in the wild. I couldn’t figure it out. Because as far as I know, trees don’t typically wear jewelry, and that’s sure as heck what this seemed like.

I tried to untangle the metal to get whatever it was free when I heard them — sirens. “No, that’s way too fast!” I groaned.

“Man, don’t those cops have anything else to do?” Ty muttered, and shot me a look. “It’s now or never, Arlie.”

I nodded and tugged at the chain one last time. It broke and came off in my hand. I slipped the chain into Mr. Lobotomy’s empty head as Ty grabbed Mr. Boots. Then I gritted my teeth and got ready to skedaddle.

“At the count of three,” Ty said, and then he jumped.

“Count of three means counting, Ty!” I hissed as I jumped after him, doing my best to avoid breaking my neck on the sidewalk. Remind me to give Ty a basic tutorial in escaping etiquette.

Ty must’ve hit the ground running, because he was half a block ahead of me by the time I’d scrambled to my feet and taken off after him. Mrs. Wombat screeched in rage and let a warning shot loose in the sky (at least I’m hoping it was a warning shot. I’d hate to think she’d really take a potshot at a ninth grader in Wonder Woman sweatpants).

It was actually kind of exciting, like we were spies running away with a huge fireball behind us, except less cool and with no fireball. I lost a flip-flop in our escape, but I really doubt it’s enough to incriminate me. It’s not like I was going back for it. I didn’t stop until I’d caught up with Ty two blocks from the Happy Mart.

“Any tatershot in your butt?” Ty panted, leaning over with his hands on his knees.

I shook my head and flopped down next to Mr. Boots, who was sprawled out on the sidewalk, completely unfazed. Apparently doggie pimps elude danger every day and it’s the most boring thing ever.

“Terrific.” Ty grinned at me. “This calls for a Happy Dog.”

“If you’re buying.” I pointed to my sweatpants. “I think my wallet’s in my other pants.”

“Mooch.” Ty slapped me on the back.

I chucked Mr. Lobotomy into the grass beside me and he toppled over onto his side, spilling the chain out of his head. I scooted him back so I could see what kind of new brains I’d set him up with. And when I did, I could almost feel my eyes bugging out of my head.

I don’t know what I’d expected, but whatever it was, it wasn’t this. That wasn’t some kid’s cheap Hello Kitty necklace. Lying in the dust next to Mr. Lobotomy’s head was a sparkling black dragonfly pendant — definitely antique and definitely expensive. And definitely not mine.
Copyright © 2009 by Emily Ecton

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